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New York City’s Specialized High Schools are highly selective public schools for academically and artistically gifted students. There are nine specialized high schools in New York City. Admission to eight of the schools is based on the score attained on the competitive Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT).  (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts accepts students based on auditions and reviews of academic records.)  Places are awarded to those students who earn the highest scores on the SHSAT, which is offered to all eighth and ninth grade students residing within New York City. Students who qualify may attend the selective high school of their choice. The best known of these schools are the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.

According to a recent series on the local New York City NBC television affiliate, “a dramatic race gap persists at the city’s most elite public high schools, a product of a single standardized entrance exam that privileges students who have been intensively primed and prepped through expensive private tutoring programs.”  The reporters go on to point out that “At Stuyvesant High School, widely viewed as the crown jewels of the top public high schools, just two percent of incoming ninth-graders are black, and 3.5 percent are Hispanic . . . In the general New York City public school population, the two groups comprise a total of 77 percent.”

The New York Public School district is divided into “community school districts,” neighborhoods, varying from the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan and the semi-suburban areas of eastern Queens, to the impoverished Bronx and central Brooklyn areas.  The distribution of students qualifying for selective high schools is a measure of the academic quality of science education in their middle and junior high schools and, perhaps, a measure of the family incomes in those neighborhoods. Students in northeastern Queens, near Great Neck, have a good opportunity to learn in a selective high school.  Students in the Bronx and Central Brooklyn have none.

An especially curious fact is that 115 of the 843 students admitted to Stuyvesant in a recent year had not attended New York City schools.  They came from private schools and the suburbs.  Their parents had invested in their elementary and middle school education in expensive private schools so that they could have a free education in one of the nation’s best public high schools.

Selective high schools are the Emerald City of New York City public education. The yellow brick road leading to them starts with the kindergarten tests for Gifted and Talented programs. But not all children have a chance of even setting out on that road. The city tests only 21% of its kindergarten students.  The percentage of students in a neighborhood the New York City Public Schools thinks it worthwhile to test varies by the income of their parents. In some community school districts 70% of the students are tested.  In others, as few as 7% are tested.   If instead, say, 70% of ALL students were tested, we could estimate that there would be an additional 10,000 students qualifying for the ruby slippers of the city’s Gifted and Talented programs.  These additional students would mostly be Black, Hispanic and living in poverty.  It is these students, and their peers, whom the system is denying an equal opportunity to learn.

The yellow brick road out of poverty runs through the schools.  Unfortunately, that road is blocked by a Tin Man, lacking a heart, who prevents poor children from embarking on that road by restricting the additional resources that flow to students in Gifted and Talented programs to those from prosperous families, and a Cowardly Lion, lacking the courage to do what he must knows is right, maintaining a gatekeeper examination that cannot be passed without expensive private tutoring. Is it then any accident that Stuyvesant is one of the most highly segregated schools in the country, with only 2% of its student body who are Black and 3% Latino?  Do we need any more evidence that there is a pattern of segregation from kindergarten through high school in New York City?

Any objective observer would find it highly suspicious that NYC has a system of  selective high schools with a gateway examination that cannot be passed without extra tutoring.  The New York City Department of Education appears to believe that its schools are not good enough for the SHSAT. Doesn’t that seem a bit odd?  Perhaps not when we know that many schools in the poorest parts of the city do not offer the courses, like advanced algebra, necessary to even read the questions on the test.

However, this situation, just because it is so egregious, offers an opportunity for fundamental change in the nation’s largest school system.  

First, the New York City Public Schools should abolish the SHSAT.  That should be done for a number of reasons, not the least being that no child’s future should be determined by a single, high stakes, standardized test, especially one that is admittedly not aligned with the curriculum of the schools and blatantly discriminates on the basis of family income.

Instead of the SHSAT, the school district should adopt a system used for college admission in various places around the country:  a quota, based on enrollment, from each middle and junior high school.  If a school enrolls, say, 1% of the city’s grade 8 students, then 1% of the pool of students admitted to the specialized high schools should come from that school.  Each school should be permitted to set their own criteria for identifying those students, as who knows students better than their teachers?  

What would be the consequences of this innovation?  Some schools which now send many students to the selective high schools would send fewer.  Every school which now sends no students to the selective high schools would send some.  Every student in New York City would have an equal opportunity to learn in some of the best high schools in the nation.

It is possible that parents now willing and able to pay large amounts of money for after-school and Saturday classes for their children from kindergarten through grade 8, and to pay for special “cramming” tutoring in for the SHSAT, will consider moving from neighborhoods where the competition for places will be high to neighborhoods where the schools currently do not sent students to the selective high schools.  It is possible that they will put pressure on those schools—and the NYC Department of Education—to improve the schools so that their children will have the opportunity to attend a selective high school.  It is possible that the NYC Department of Education will do this, will make all its schools places where every child has an opportunity to learn to high standards.

And now we will all join together and sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Note:  This blog first appeared on RiShawn Biddle's

For more information about the condition of New York City Public education see "A Rotting Apple:  Education Redlining in New York," which is available on-line at  or in print at

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Comment Preferences

  •  I wondered if you had any research to refer to (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, Roadbed Guy, Rich in PA

    backing up your belief that test cramming is what makes the difference in getting into these schools?

    Might it be something even more insidious? Granted, families with money can afford test prep but they also can afford a whole bunch of other things - like quality childcare, quality food, and quality vacation time. Could it be that the big difference has more to do with poverty than with test scores?

    •  Oh Nooooo, Trickle Down Never Fails In Any Sector (0+ / 0-)

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 06:36:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Indeed, overall the number one correlation (0+ / 0-)

      of success in school is a family's income bracket.

      Which is a much, much tougher nut to crack than blaming everything on a test (yes, testing is completely assinine, but it's more a sympton than the underlying disease in many cases).

    •  Selective High School Test (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Passing the test is a requirement for admission.  As the NYC Department of Education is now paying for the tutoring of a few students whose parents cannot afford it, we can assume that in the opinion of the NYC Department of Education tutoring is necessary to pass the test.

      •  Prepare for the SHS test (0+ / 0-)

        We can assume — correction; we can conclude— it is the opinion of the NYC Dept of Ed (but they won't say it out loud) that the K-7 curriculum is for the birds and that tutoring is necessary to pass the test that the DOE paid to have created.

        Instead of overhauling at least grade 4-7 curriculum, they're doing the Dream Institute.

        They should stop underestimating and have higher expectations of their students throughout the City.

        More gifted program seats in grade school.

  •  There's a more pervasive issue here. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Selective public schools are part of a grand bargain to keep wealthier people in the city, and to tamp down their aversion to paying high taxes for schools.  And I think the evidence suggests that it works.  The whole context is pretty horrible, of course, because it reproduces privilege with public dollars.  But overall it's probably a net resources gain for big-city public education, not to mention that fact that at least some non-privileged kids get to benefit from that enriched education.  

    Romney '12: Berlusconi without the sex and alcohol!

    by Rich in PA on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 07:13:16 AM PDT

  •  Socio-Economic Matters (0+ / 0-)

    1) It is my understanding that it is the purpose of schools (and school systems) to educate all children well, without regard to the type of homes from which they come.

    2) According to the 2010 Census, Median NYC incomes are: White, non-Hispanic, $66,000; Asian, $52,000; Black, $40,000; Hispanic, $36,000.

    3)  For research on this and related matters click on "publications" at
    The recent publication "A Rotting Apple" is of direct relevance.

  •  Don't Destroy Selective HS; Other HS Exists (0+ / 0-)

    Holzman's proposal of a changing the selective schools admission standards to college quota type system would:

     1) be against the Hecht-Calandra Act
     2) be redundant for there are already good schools in the NYC system that do that — they're called "Ed Opt"
     3) be wrought with controversy on Day One.
     4) not solve the underlying problem

    1) The H-C Act chose the fairest route to three — now  eight schools: a test measuring extent of knowledge of subjects, scored by a computer. Can't get anymore blind than that. Other criteria that could be used are Grades, Interviews, Essays, and Recommendations. Grades can subjective; a child's grade could be lowered by a couple of points because he didn't raise his hand a certain number of times and miss qualification for a school. Interviewers can be impressed by a starched collared shirt, nice smile and perfect articulation; essay readers can misinterpret a turn of phrase or be offended by content written by an applicant.

    By the way, there are arguably schools as good as the eight selective high schools who do use the above routes to select students. The ethnic ratio of their student body is only a little better, but it would still raise eyebrows if the media knew about them.

    2) Ed-Opt high schools automatically accept any applicant who scores in the top 2% of the state standardized Math and ELA test. Other students are selected by lottery.

    Again, note a comprehensive test is used. That's because there is no other way to uniformly evaluate 50,000 students from different schools.

    That's because the valedictorian of one middle school will be years' advanced academically than another's valedictorian. To throw an unprepared child into a selective school could destroy their spirit irreparably. It will also cause a slowing-down of classroom pace. Eventually, the bright students will become under-stimulated, bored and discouraged. They will not perform as well as peers across the country who are learning without being held back. The selective schools will no longer have the reputation of attracting and nurturing the strongest students. So now college admissions and the future are affected.

    3) It's very naive to expect each middle school to use fair criteria when submitting names for Holzman's proposed school. Would you not think that the teacher's favorites and the politically connected be the majority of those names?

    What about the shy quiet child with high grades whose parents are too busy working to be involved in the bake sales?

    Imagine the uproar when it's found out a child did not have his name submitted because a parent once complained to the principal about a teacher, or bad lunch food, or online bullying committed by one of the administration's faved children.

    We are not mature nor perfectly objective enough to have Holzman's suggested selection process.

    4) The real problem is that every public school student who takes the SHSAT this year will all have been taught using the curriculum designed by the DOE under our current mayor. For some reason, only a small percentage of children are exposed to the advanced material covered by the SHSAT. Administrators at underperforming schools make blanket assumptions and never give their students a chance at advanced work. Pessimistic about the outcome, these administrators don't even try.

    Not only that, the number of gifted classes has been decreased in the City, and Gifted Classes have always been the feeders into the selective high schools. Students qualified for gifted classes are now chosen by lottery because of the limited seats. You can bet parents of those whose names are not pulled transfer their children to private schools in order to avoid enrollment in an underperforming school.

    (The DOE's Dream program, which prepares Title 1 students for the SHSAT, is also done by lottery. That means very qualified students are likely not doing test preparation, and don't have the means of getting it. Why a lottery? Not enough money.)

    Finally, lack of information has led to some students being more prepared than others. It's horrible that the kids uptown have no idea that their school work is not as rigorous as their peers' work downtown. Parents are unaware as they don't socialize with each other. By the time parents find out what it takes to do well on the SHSAT (or qualify to get into the other good non-selective HS), it's too late to teach and prepare their children.

    The problem is not these eight selective schools — eight out of 400 high schools, mind-you.

    The problem begins in elementary school with the weak curriculum, lack of enough gifted classes and no word-of-mouth.

    In the next ten years, after another mayor and another DOE, perhaps all students will be prepared to take the SHSAT and the ones to be accepted will truly have competed on a level field.

    In the meantime, don't criticize the students who have worked hard with the goal of getting into these schools. Not all spent thousands of dollars in test prep; actually, a good number didn't have to cram at all. Thanks to their bright minds and ten years of a decent education, these kids should be allowed to go to schools that challenge them, and be surrounded by students equally ready for the challenge.

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